Meaning and having names for things vs knowing how they work

by Voltairina4 min read18th Mar 20127 comments


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I saw this post on a discussion thread earlier:

We routinely deny, or act in spite of, inconvenient truths. We can recognize that there is no meaning to love beyond evolutionary and chemical triggers, yet we fight for it just as fervently. Nihilists write books about nihilism despite it's admitted pointlessness. We are as blind as our very genes which multiply and propagate themselves despite our executioner sun which grows daily above our heads, eventually to the point of consuming everything we know. By the very act of living and pursuing human concocted dreams and desires, we are in a constant denial of our situation.

I wonder a few things. Is this sort of experience related to the spoiler effect people claim to experience when they know the ending of a good book in advance? If so, this (paper itself here, thanks gwern) might be relevant. Its a wired article, referring to a study where it appeared the opposite of the spoiler effect is actually true - knowing the ending in advance improves people's subjective experience of a good short story. Do people subjectively experience the spoiler effect anyways? I'm wondering if it isn't really something like this:

              1.A person reads a short story they enjoy with a spoiler in mind.

              2.A person anticipates the ending experience and ramp up for it

              3.A person enjoys it more than if unspoiled.

              4.person carries a "spoiler effect" meme, and engages in the mind projection fallacy to imagine what life would have   been like had they been able to read the short story without a spoiler.

              5.They decide to accept the validity of this projection, and this reinforces the meme, because they experience annoyance with their experience of the story compared to the imagined experience of the unspoiled story.

I also wonder whether there's a way to modify the mind projection fallacy to set up a feedback loop? Imagining how wonderful it will be to be in good shape while you're exercising, maybe, then fantasising about being in good shape, then thinking how much better actually being in shape will be than fantasising, then fantasising again with the updated impression that the real thing was better, so your fantasy of the thing becomes better to compensate, then reminding yourself that the fantasy is not as good...

Another explanation for why it might seem better not to know things seems to be related to suspended disbelief. Maybe whatever the real explanation is, it won't match up to our imagined explanation, or the joy of discovering that explanation independently (which at the very least includes knowing the answer's 'aha' moment plus a bit of pride about finding it yourself). If its the latter, you'd think everyone would have some motivation to get out there and do science and it might be wise to be more forgiving of people who do science, although prolific scientists might seem greedy to the rest of us, I guess. If its the former (not matching the imagined explanation), like, "its more fun to imagine fairies did it", that'd be the suspended disbelief instance. Like, knowing how the props work in a movie might be distracting to the experience of feeling like the movie events are real while watching them. Maybe it ruins the 'escapism' of it for some people who don't compartmentalise the explanation vs. the experience well. I've long been a fan of doing both - picking apart the special effects *while* being immersed in the story and feeling as though it is true. But I wonder if I might cry at sad parts or get more shocked at horrific parts more if on some level I didn't know the way it worked. Spoiler effect? Mind projection fallacy? Narrative disruption? All, some, or none of the above? Like, the apologist is facilitating your enjoyment of a movie, and the revolutionary is there fighting for dominance. It makes me wonder whether people who are sleep deprived are more likely not to want to know how things work.

As a meme, the idea that knowing how things work makes them less fun seems to be a useful protective meme for bigger plexes like religion and belief in the supernatural. It could be that there are just so many people who hold these plexes that the meme gets replicated a lot as a byproduct, without having much survival value on its own. Like a beneficial (to the memeplex) virus.

On a related note, I just saw a meme (the picture-with-text-on-it-kind) about mamavirus and its hitchiking virus, Sputnik, the other day. I was shocked to learn something new from a meme. Kind of wondering about the educational value of weird memes now.

Oh just realised I never thought about the having-a-name-for-a-thing-means-it-has-an-atomic-essence-or-associated-meaning-unit vs knowing what it was made of sort of alluded to by the title much. I am guessing there are more or less "atomic" sensations like redness that can't be reduced in more elementary terms, but that this doesn't mean they're qualia, any more than an intelligent vcr might have any lower level reductive explanation of the experience from inside the algorithm of having its "eject" button pushed in terms of other experiences, but does not necessarily exist in some dualistic mindspace interacting via its mechanical pineal gland as a result.


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I think you're reading too much into the results of one study. There are respected claims going around that most published studies are false. I don't know about that, but we do know there's a good chance any given cutting-edge study is reporting a false effect. And here you are speculating on the premise that it's true. Even if it is, which is already dubious, your speculation could still be false.

Also, even if the study is true, and there is a greater immediate hedonic benefit to being spoiled of a story's ending, it's still true that people who claim to prefer not being spoilers don't, much in the same way that you can temporarily enjoy eating fifteen dozen brownies, but it is not likely something you'd prefer forced on you. Consider the difference between the experiential self and the remembered self.

There is trust that if knowing the ending would have made the story better, then the author would have put it at the start of the book- and that is indeed often done with certain types of books, and is a well known technique with some technical name which I forgot.

I'd interpret the study that more authors need to use this technique, not that readers should second-guess authors.

is a well known technique with some technical name which I forgot.


Well that to, but it wasn't what I were thinking about... That thing where there is a prologue about something exiting happening, then 90% of the book is a flashback of the event leading up to it. Ugh, my memory is so horrible at coming up wth examples of things.

You might be thinking of "full circle" stories. An example of this is To Kill a Mockingbird which starts with Jem's broken arm and eventually explains how it happened. More dramatic examples exist, certainly, including some of the HPMoR examples.

yea that's the one I think.

I hadn't really thought of sharing spoilers as second-guessing the author before. Interesting way to think about it I guess.